Friday, August 28, 2009

Mother of boy with autism who was voted out of kindergarten class sues school district, teacher

From in Florida:

A federal lawsuit filed August 27 by the mother of the kindergartner voted out of his classroom more than a year ago goes beyond the events of May 21, 2008.

The incident traumatized Alex Barton (pictured), damaging his self-worth and feelings toward school and people, the lawsuit said.

“It’s been difficult,” said Alex’s mother, Melissa Barton. Alex is in therapy to deal with the incident at Morningside Elementary, she said. He second-guesses himself and his first questions with his new teacher were about how discipline is handled, she said. The lawsuit says Alex hides under a table when someone new comes to his home.

The lawsuit further claims retaliation against Melissa Barton because she spoke out when her then-5-year-old son Alex was voted out. The teacher’s union objected to Alex’s placement in a union member’s classroom and blocked Alex from transitioning to a different public school in St. Lucie County, according to the lawsuit.

The retaliation from the district and parents caused Barton to move her family to Martin County. She said she no longer feels safe in St. Lucie County.

Last school year, she filed a police report claiming another parent had threatened her while she attended a Morningside school program involving her oldest son. No charges were filed against the parent.

The lawsuit names the St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers’ Association as one of the defendants.

While the lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, Barton and her attorneys say the lawsuit isn’t about money.

“This is a case about every child who attends school in Florida,” said Barton’s attorney Paul Sopp.

Sopp said the lawsuit focuses on the violation of Alex’s civil rights.

In May 2008, Alex’s teacher Wendy Portillo asked his classmates to vote as to whether he should be allowed back in the classroom. Alex was sent out of the classroom earlier because of behavior issues. As Alex stood in front of the room beside Portillo, students told him how his behavior made them feel. Alex then was voted out of the class, 14 to 2.

Alex, who since has been diagnosed with a form of autism, spent the day in the nurse’s office. It was his last day in a St. Lucie County public school classroom. Last year, Alex got homebound services from the district. This year, he started second grade in a private school.

Barton, who is the beginning of early labor with her third child, attended a news conference with her attorneys at their offices in West Palm Beach. She said she believed in defending her children, which she hoped would ultimately result in helping all children.

Portillo originally was suspended for one year and her tenure was revoked. Although an administrative law judge upheld Superintendent Michael Lannon’s recommendation, the School Board reversed itself and gave Portillo back her tenure. The one-year unpaid suspension ends in November.

Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are the St. Lucie County School Board, Lannon, former Morningside Elementary administrators Marcia Cully and Patricia Gascoigne, Portillo and exceptional student education director Bill Tomlinson.

School District spokeswoman Janice Karst said the district does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit alleges intentional discrimination, gross neglect and abuse and describes the voting incident as a “Survivor-style” vote, in reference to the reality TV show.

The lawsuit alleges school officials knew Alex had a probable disability and did not follow proper procedures.

The lawsuit alleges the voting incident resulted in Alex “suffering from severe emotional distress, feelings of self-worthless and withdrawal with (Alex’s) behavior beginning to spiral out of control.”

The suit states Alex would not sleep in his own bed and when he was in bed he was overheard saying “I’m not special” over and over. He also says things to himself such as “I’m an idiot” or “I’m stupid” and “I’m disgusting” over and over.

“Instead of an education based upon academics, (Alex) was given an education in bigotry and discrimination that will forever have a traumatizing effect on his life and the lives of those who knew him,” the lawsuit says.

Barton said Alex still remembers the vote and gets therapy to work through those issues. He talks about how people don’t like him, she said.

“It’s not going to disappear. This is something that is going to affect him the rest of his life,” she said.

Sopp said a victory in the case would help other students.

“What we’re trying to do is ensure that no one in the St. Lucie County School District is denied education based upon their disability,” Sopp said.